Just as TV does not always represent reality, the Internet does not always represent the truth. Instead, it is a constantly evolving mix of opinions, messages and interpretations. To help your pre-teen realize this, get her in the habit of asking where Internet information comes from.
Talk to your child about her online discoveries. Let her know she has many options when she finds a site, image or person objectionable or difficult to understand. She can close a window and walk away, or she can speak up about what she has encountered. Now is a good time to talk about the value of personal information. This includes protecting her own privacy and respecting that of others, as well as understanding that people can pretend to be something online that they are not in life.
5 Ways to Promote Critical Thinking
- Encourage your child to question all digita information.
Have your child ask: Where does this information come from? How does this website's information — its text, its images, its overall look and fee l — shape my understanding? What is the point of view? What information is missing? Are certain people and opinions not represented?
- Show your child how to evaluate a website by first noting the address and then looking for background information.
Talk to your child about sites that look sleek but do not make clear who produced the information. To avoid being fooled by these, first note the website address, then dig deeper for background information: Follow "About Us" and other kinds of "Who We Are" links that may lead you to find out which people or group created the site.
- Teach your child to be skeptical of e-mails and text messages from unknown sources.
Introduce your child to sites where she can track down hoaxes and scams. Entering the term "urban legends" into a search engine will steer you to sites that debunk famous rumors. The Virus Hoax area of the Symantec Anti-Virus Research Center is useful when it comes to rumors about computer viruses.
- Help your child understand that not all digital information sources are created equal.
More and more search engines use a pay-for-placement model, which prioritizes companies that pay, just as social networking sites cull through user data to generate advertiser interest. Show your child how to recognize where the paid rankings appear on a screen and how to look for listings that are more likely related to her search. Likewise, show your child how to set privacy controls, keeping her profile and updates protected.
- Go online with you child.
Exploring websites, social networks and game apps with your child will familiarize you with the features and spaces that appeal to her and her friends. This is easier to do if you keep the computer in a location shared by the family – not in an individual bedroom. Or, try to get shoulder-to-shoulder with smart phones, e-readers and other portable devices.
5 Ways to Stay Safe Online
- Discourage your child from sharing personal information online.
Whether your child is visiting a commercial website or video chatting with a pal online, she should never give out her name, address, phone number or any other detail that could identify her. Show her how to use a screen name rather than her real name. Encourage her to talk to you before signing up for a sweepstakes or other contest.
- Talk to your child about the difficulty of identifying others online.
The anonymity of the Internet makes it easy for a person to pretend to be someone else. Let your child know this. You may want to limit her online contacts to people she knows away from the computer. Common Sense Media has online safety tips for children of different ages and the Think U Know site offers a crash course in online chat and instant messaging for both parents and children.
- Create a safe space for your child to talk about what she sees online.
Get your child talking about what she finds on the Internet. Let her know that inappropriate sites may appear on screen through no fault of her own. Get her in the habit of talking to you about objectionable content and leaving areas that you have defined as off-limits.
- Help your preteen limit her computer, phone and e-reader use.
Make sure your child is not letting screen time get in the way of face time with friends and family, physical activity and schoolwork.
- Consider the pros and cons of filtering products.
Internet filters block access to sites considered unsuitable for children. But no Internet filter is foolproof — every product has built-in biases that may or may not suit your family's values — but you can use tools such as GetNetWise and online reviews to help you decide.